Cohabitation is a dark and funny radio play consisting of five inspired vignettes chronicling one day in the lives of the human and non-human (both dead and alive) inhabitants of a fictional greystone in Chicago.
In this act, Apricot Wensleydale, a family's matriarch gets fed up with her whiny progeny.
Cohabitation was co-produced and engineered by David Whitcomb.
Jill Dorothy Summers’s audio fiction has been featured internationally by Chicago Public Radio, the Third Coast International Audio Festival, and New Adventures in Sound Art. Her work has appeared in Stop Smiling, Ninth Letter, and MAKE magazine, among others.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Jill Dorothy Summers
Cohabitation is a multimedia presentation in the truest sense. [Ed. note: Cohabitation consists of a sound piece, a book (with CD), a video, and a physical construction, which was originally exhibited at the Glass Curtain Gallery and then at Columbia College's Hokin Gallery.] Can you describe the various facets of the piece and why you decided to use sound to tell the story?
Cohabitation is a collection of five short stories that take place through the course of a single day and surround the inhabitants of a single building. The project includes a written component, a set of five audio shorts, and a miniature maquette of the greystone, which you can peep into to see assembled scenes related to the stories. So it is basically just a few different ways of presenting the same narrative -- even the miniature house is a sculptural binding of the stories.
The project was my thesis for an MFA in book and paper arts, which is book binding, printing, and papermaking -- but the book and paper program at Columbia is part of their larger Interdisciplinary Arts department, so over the course of completing the program I took the required Sound Images course and completed a semester-long independent project in sound -- both with composer / sound artist Jeff Abell. Initially I dreaded the sound requirement, but from our first project (an "autobiography in sound"), I was really hooked. My comfort level had a lot to do with the fact that I am married to a recording engineer and we run a recording studio out of our house -- so it was easy for me to jump right in. But before that I had never really even considered going into the studio myself.
I like recording my stories because it gives me full control over how the timing and tone of the text is heard. And it is a way to really bring to life subtext by using sound effects and music. I really like how despite the highly technical nature of the process, the finished product always feels nostalgic, like story albums I had when I was a kid or obviously, radio plays. I also just have a lot of fun recording.
You dreaded the sound requirement, but you are married to a recording engineer? That's pretty funny.
Well he wasn't a recording engineer when I married him -- he was just a musician!
I didn't immediately see how recording could possibly be of use to me -- I was focusing on book arts and the idea to record my writing didn't even occur to me. I think I also dreaded the performance aspect of it -- you know, having to sit in a room full of people listening to something you recorded yourself doing is more stressful than live performance when at least you're physically occupied. There is really something to be said for forcing yourself outside of your comfort zone though, and trying new things. Sometimes it's just a big mess, but you could also just really fall in love.
Why did you want to score the material yourself? Can you talk about some of the recording process in the studio with your husband, David Whitcomb?
I wanted all the various elements to be from scratch. And since it is incidental music, it was easy enough to come up with some short melodies. We recorded the main narration first and then Dave would have to endure my painfully unorganized process of recording the music – which usually consisted of my producing some scraps of sheet music, playing like a single measure of one of the parts, and then asking him if it was possible to auto-tune, rhythmically align, and pitch shift it -- and then repeat it 9,000 times until the end of the story. I mean, not really, but I could have stood to be a lot more organized about the music. After we got all the musical parts recorded and set against the text, we'd go back in and add effects, extra voices, etc. There is no way I could have done any of it without Dave -- I trust his feedback and obviously I depend on his technical expertise in the studio.
Third Coast is ostensibly a documentary festival, and though Cohabitation is a work of fiction, I still think it serves as a documentary of sorts. What were some of the people, places, themes that you were trying to capture?
I was interested in exploring relationships and what happens to us when we share our space with others – not only other people, but with animals, with objects, with disease, with actual or figurative ghosts, with infestation, etc., as well as with the residue of all of the above that is left in our space and our subconscious from past generations. But there is no grand theme. Most of all I am just interested in
Trying to create something that is engaging and entertaining and easy to relate to.
Is there an ideal presentation of this work? Would you like people to experience the construction, the book, and the sound all at the same time? Does it lose anything by being presented on the radio?
No, not at all – I have loved hearing the stories on the radio and think they exist just fine in isolation from the print edition and the installation. The miniature greystone is so unwieldy, I feel extremely lucky to have been able to exhibit it at all. The print edition comes with a copy of the CD, but I would be fine with someone just reading the little book.
It was a real challenge trying to figure out how to display it in a gallery setting -- at the Center for Book and Paper Arts last May, the house sat on a base that had a video of the boulevard where the stories take place on time lapse projecting out of it onto the wall behind it and the audio playing on loop within it -- that was sort of cool, but imagine the poor gallery attendants after a month with that audio and really, I can't imagine all that many people stood there for an hour to listen to the entire thing. It is in a show in Columbia's Hokin Gallery right now where there wasn't space to project the video and it wasn't possible to have an out-loud loop of the audio going, so I put the stories on headphones. Really neither set up is ideal, but it doesn't bother me too much.
I guess what it comes down to is that I hope by experiencing one of the parts of the piece, you may be interested in experiencing the others -- doesn't necessarily need to be all at once. I feel lucky that anyone is interested at all.